Dillon's Interpretation of Hamlet
A player's Hamlet
Man of Action
A player's Hamlet
On hearing of the arrival of the players, Hamlet does not ask the natural
question "What players are they?" until after he has
prescribed their roles and corresponding fates: "He that plays
the king shall be welcome - his majesty shall have tribute of me; etc."
The six roles he describes and the fates they suffer match the other main
characters in Hamlet, and so arose the idea of a touring company of six
stock-character actors, directed by Hamlet, performing the outer as well
as the inner play, in a manner reflecting the practices of the world's
two oldest surviving theatrical forms, Commedia and Noh.
Man of Action
I try to avoid forming any directorial concept before rehearsals, but
after ten years of wanting to play Hamlet and after seeing many ill-conceived
productions (the only performance I have admired unreservedly has been
that of Mark Rylance), it was inevitable that I should have formulated
some idea of what the play and the character are about. Towards the end
of the play, Hamlet says he has "been in continual practise"
at swordsmanship, and the King bets on him defeating Laertes in nine out
of twelve passes. Knowing that the role demanded some skill with a sword,
and lacking any fencing training myself but with a little experience of
Chinese martial arts and a fascination with Japanese culture, I began
Kendo training on 6th May 1991, not knowing that it would influence my
entire outlook on Hamlet, acting and life in general. When I did eventually
come to play Hamlet, I found in him no trace of the conventional intellectual
prevaricator, and further study of the development of action within the
play, its stage history, and Elizabethan thinking on royalty, ghosts,
revenge, madness, and readiness for death confirmed my feeling that Hamlet
is a classical Man of Action.
The events of the play are, in true classical fashion, highly condensed,
with one incident rapidly following upon another in a near continuous
stream of action. Each of the three movements of the play covers a period
of no more than 48 hours. Hamlet's self-reproach in the soliloquies and
in the closet scene, far from being the self-disgust of a prevaricator
actually springs from the frustration of a man who can and does kill in
an instant in both hot and cold blood. By contrast, Laertes's willingness
to cut Hamlet's throat in the church, which academics have often admiringly
contrasted with Hamlet's supposed inaction, reveals only cowardice.
With the example of Charles Windsor before them and a stage history of
two centuries of romantic misrepresentation, critics and audiences may
expect to see royally stiff-backed, pompously-spoken, neurotic Hamlets
laboriously weighing up the pros and cons of getting up off their backsides
to actually do something. Personally I find nothing so tiresome as watching
actors putting on airs to play aristocracy, (they should study just how
gauche the truly noble Miss Bonham-Carter can be), and while the 60s idea
of Hamlet as working-class hero may not be strictly correct, to the Elizabethans
it would have proved more royally than Hamlet the Ponce.
Elizabethans held three views on ghosts: Catholics believed they were
spirits released from purgatory for a purpose; Protestants held that they
were devils; and sceptics thought them the illusions of melancholy minds.
The Ghost in Hamlet has something of each doctrine, so neither the Prince
nor the audience can be sure of his story. The veracity of the Ghost has
great significance for the question of whether Hamlet delays; whether
he is a hero or a coward. To be an avenger and not just an assassin, Hamlet
must confirm the Ghost's story before killing the King, and realising
this he instantly forms a plan to go 'undercover'. Although two months
pass between his first interview with the Ghost and the play-within-the-play
(when he gets the corroboration he needs), and another two months pass
before he returns from England and kills Claudius, despite his own misgivings
and self-accusation these delays are entirely due to factors outside Hamlet's
character or control.
A more truly ambiguous question is the reality or not of Hamlet's lunacy.
In Act One Hamlet declares his intention to "put an antic disposition
on", but later, in his treatment of Ophelia and the killing of
Polonius, he appears to be genuinely, tormentedly mad, so that when he
tells his mother that he is "not in madness, but mad in craft",
neither she nor the audience can believe him. The question is not answerable
from the text, but it is one which every actor of the role must consider.
Just as in the martial ways, physical discipline also trains the mind
and spirit, so, like Plato, I believe that by the repetition of roles
actors come to resemble the characters they play. This applies both to
Hamlet and to the actor playing him. Richard III is famous for giving
actors bad backs, and Hamlet is renowned for driving actors mad; one recent
British Oscar winner had to quit a National Theatre production after (reportedly)
seeing the ghost of his dead father in a lift!
Both Hamlet and Ophelia lose their self-control and this ultimately causes
their own deaths, and so by the definition of madness as a self-defeating
loss of reason, both may be considered truly mad. But there is a more
modern notion of madness which that cracked actor, Antonin Artaud, summarised:
"And what is an authentic madman? It is a man who has preferred
to go mad, in the sense in which society understands the term, rather
than be false to a certain superior idea of human honour ... a madman
is also a man to whom society did not want to listen and whom it wanted
to prevent from uttering unbearable truths."
For me, Hamlet is, above all, a play about coming to terms with death.
At the beginning Hamlet cannot accept the death of his father. By the
end he has accepted his own - "The readiness is all."
Playing the final act, I was constantly reminded of the Hagakure's advice:-
"I discovered that the Way of the Samurai is death. In a fifty-fifty
life or death crisis, simply settle it by choosing immediate death.
just brace yourself and proceed ... In order to be a perfect samurai,
it is necessary to prepare oneself for death morning and evening day
in and day out. When a samurai is constantly prepared for death, he
has mastered the Way of the Samurai, and he may unerringly devote his
life to the service of his lord."
The background to Hamlet's philosophy is, of course, Christian but several
Christian commentaries contain attitudes similar to the Hagakure.
Martin Luther said that Christians "should behave as those who
are at every moment ready for death", Calvin that "we
ought to live as if we were every moment about to depart this life"
and St. Francis Bales in Letters to Persons in the World wrote:
"Happy are they who, being always on their guard against death,
are always ready to go". Christ himself preached:
"Watch therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord will
come... Therefore be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think
not the Son of Man cometh." (Mathew 24:42 & 44).
Perhaps, as we approach the end of the millennium, this coming to terms
with impending doom explains the current popularity of the play.
This article first appeared in the programme for George Dillon's production of Hamlet in 1995. Other pages from that programme are also available:
Quotes on Hamlet
Hamlet's Stage History
Hamlet - Story, Dates, Sources, Texts, Cuts
George Dillon, 1995
George Dillon's Tour Dates
(as of Tuesday, 07 April 2020)